Opponent preview: Michigan State

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This is the third of twelve opponent updates as we sprint towards next Saturday’s opening game in Dublin. For more, check out the preview of Navy and Purdue.

The Overview:

It might not give Irish fans much solace, but Notre Dame finally got to be the spoiler in its annual matchup with Michigan State. The Irish rolled to a relatively easy 31-13 victory in South Bend, one of only two regular season losses for Sparty. With back-to-back eleven-win seasons, Mark Dantonio’s troops have their eye on a Big Ten championship, but will need to find some offense after saying goodbye to some key offensive weapons, none bigger than three-time captain Kirk Cousins.

Last time against the Irish:

With the 2011 season spinning out of control, Notre Dame dug itself out of an 0-2 hole, toppling No. 15 Michigan State fairly easily in South Bend. Overcoming three turnovers, Robert Blanton led the Irish, making a key interception of Cousins to seal the game, while also filling the stat sheet with six tackles, three TFLs, and a sack.

“You talk about guys leading by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about about his senior cornerback. “When you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

The Irish run defense held up against a Spartan rushing attack that gauged the Irish in 2010. Freshman George Atkinson returned a kickoff for a touchdown while Cierre Wood chipped in two on the ground.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan State as the third toughest game on the schedule.

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10. Navy
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8. Purdue
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3. Michigan State

The Match-up:

With a primetime start in Spartan Stadium, we’ll likely get our first look at what this Notre Dame team is made of. Facing what is likely to be the best defense in the Big Ten, Everett Golson (if he’s still starting) will face the first difficult setting of his college career. Eight starters return for Pat Narduzzi’s defense, and none more impressive than defensive end William Gholston, who leads a loaded defensive front even without the departed Jerel Worthy. Three linebackers and three defensive backs also return to the starting lineup, with Denicos Allen a linebacker to watch and All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams also returning.

If the Spartans defense is a proven commodity, the offense is the exact opposite. Junior Andrew Maxwell will try and fill Cousins shoes, and he’s seen mostly mop-up work in his first two seasons. Who Maxwell with throw to is also in question, with the Spartan’s three leading receivers gone, and only eight combined receptions among key returnees. After building an offensive line on the fly last year, the Spartans return a solid group up front and Le’Veon Bell is primed for a big season after splitting carries last season with Edwin Baker.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish offense can make enough plays and avoid making mistakes, they’ll likely escape East Lansing with a win. With the Spartans offense still coming into form, the Irish’s run defense can shut down Bell, and force Maxwell to try and beat the Irish through the air. Notre Dame’s inexperienced secondary will need to win out against their equally green counterparts, and if they’re playing with a lead, it’ll give Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams a chance to get after the quarterback. Expect Notre Dame’s ground game to try and make a statement against the Spartans, with Harry Hiestand challenging his unit to lead the offense.

How the Irish will lose:

This will be a mighty big stage for Everett Golson, and his first visit to enemy territory could get ugly if the Irish are forced to get one dimensional. With an unproven receiving corps and a vanilla offensive system designed to limit mistakes, Notre Dame could get bottled up and struggle to move the ball. Maxwell might not have thrown a meaningful pass in his career yet, but the junior has seen the bright lights. Against a depleted Irish secondary that’s learning on the fly, talented transfer DeAnthony Arnett could wreak some havoc against the green Irish secondary.

Gut Feeling:

If there’s a September loss, this one leads the probability watch. A tough location against a team that’s always played the Irish tough, the Spartans have to feel like this one carries a grudge (something you often see when Dantonio takes on Kelly. That said, I think the lack of an offensive identity for the Spartans, and Notre Dame’s ability to win the battle up front, helps them get a key road win.